Still Standing: Dhobi Khana and its Workers in Fort Kochi, Kerala

Athul SG is a research associate at CSES. Through this blog post, he shares his field experiences from an ongoing study at CSES, focusing on Dhobi Khana.

Nestled on the southwestern coast of India, Fort Kochi is a charming enclave that seamlessly intertwines the echoes of its colonial past with the rhythmic waves of the Arabian Sea. History whispers through ancient streets adorned with cobbled stones and lined with colonial-era buildings bearing Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences. Amidst them lies Dhobi Khana, a community laundry space in Fort Kochi, silently woven into the fabric of the city. Tracing its roots to the colonial era, this narrative spans generations, recounting a story of resilience and endurance.

One account posits that the Vannar, or the traditional laundering community, was brought from Tamil Nadu during the Portuguese-Dutch period to launder military uniforms, while another narrative connects it to British officers during the colonial period. Approximately 80 ponds were reportedly dug for washing clothes for each Vannar family in the present-day “Veli” ground. However, due to the acquisition of these lands for the construction of the ground, the Greater Kochi Development Authority (GCDA) constructed the present-day “Dhobi Khana” in 56.79 square meters of land in 1976, entrusting its management to the Vannar Sangham, a registered society of the Vannar community in Fort Kochi.

Over time, the Vannar community has become an integral part of Fort Kochi’s cultural tapestry, embracing a distinct identity marked by worship, rituals, and festivals reflective of their Tamil heritage. Cultural diversity in Dhobi Khana is not merely a visual spectacle but an intrinsic part of the daily rhythm, a testament to the dedication of its workers to preserving traditional laundry methods. Each worker, allocated a wash pen, contributes to the rhythmic sounds of clothes being beaten against stones—an echo of a bygone era. Adorned with Tamil movie posters and a corner television playing Tamil soundtracks or movies, Dhobi Khana seamlessly integrates with the workers’ industrious atmosphere. Oblivious to the presence of curious tourists, the workers embody silent dedication, deftly navigating through the choreography of washing, sorting, and ironing.

The noticeable absence of younger generations among the workforce, with the youngest worker aged 42, underscores a declining trend. Currently, 29 workers are engaged in laundry work at Dhobi Khana, predominantly elderly. Prolonged standing during washing or ironing has resulted in a significant number of them suffering from varicose veins and chronic venous insufficiency. A septuagenarian who has been working at the Dhobi Khana for more than 45 years said, “I continue working through the pain in my legs. Earlier, I would do more work, but now I can’t, but I won’t stop as this is our livelihood and my income”. Similar narratives were also shared by workers who remarked that body aches are persistent. Further, skin allergies due to prolonged exposure to water, whose quality has declined over time, are another concern among the workers. Many of the workers’ entire lifetimes are spent within the confines of Dhobi Khana’s cubicle, and the years of labour have weathered their hands and their bodies. Adding to their challenges, the unpredictable climate variability, manifesting as frequent rains throughout the year, exacerbates their difficulties. This dampens their spirits and imposes additional physical strain as they constantly retrieve drying clothes.

The workers’ health is intricately linked to socio-economic and environmental conditions, extending beyond personal choices. Structural factors, including the traditional caste-linked economic activity and limited alternative employment options, impact their health outcomes. Body capital is significant for those vulnerable and economically disadvantaged, reflecting the cumulative impacts on their health over years of toil. Despite navigating through pain, they undertake minimal work to support their families, relying on adaptive measures such as wearing compression socks and applying ointment for skin allergies before work.

Dhobi Khana also transcends from a workplace to a space where workers find solace and companionship under the shade of a tree, occasionally finding moments of respite amidst their extended work hours. Few workers keep coming back to Dhobi Khana to relive the memories of the years spent inside these walls and to do away with their loneliness in their old age.

The story of Dhobi Khana is not just a historical account but an ongoing narrative requiring meticulous preservation. Dhobi Khana, standing since its inauguration, serves as a living testament to the resilience of the Vannar community and the evolving dynamics of traditional occupations in the modern age. The workers are “Still Standing,” mirroring Dhobi Khana’s endurance through the storms of time, a silent witness to the changing landscapes of Kochi, and a testament to their perseverance in the face of challenges.